Big Finish Review: The Diary of River Song Series 4
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River Song continues her journey back down the Doctor’s timeline to meet the Fourth Doctor, having previously encountered Eight, Seven, Six and Five in previous series. With Series 4 being the second River release this year, and Series 5 being released in less than four months’ time (plus her appearance in The Legacy of Time next July), the character is currently getting a lot of exposure to listeners.
One wonders how long Alex Kingston will continue to grace Big Finish with her presence and passionate portrayal of the time-travelling archaeologist. Hopefully a while yet!
The Diary of River Song Series 4, starring Alex Kingston and Tom Baker, was released in September 2018 and is on sale exclusively on the Big Finish website until 30 November 2018. The boxset was penned by Emma Reeves, Matt Fitton, Donald McLeary and John Dorney, was produced by David Richardson and directed by Ken Bentley.
Here are the synopses...
When River Song visits a place where time has vanished, a genie escapes its bottle… the Discordia are freed – nihilistic time pirates, in devilish form, altering the past to make sure they never lose.
This time, River may have met her match. And involving the Doctor can only make things worse…
Time in a Bottle by Emma Reeves and Matt Fitton
River is recruited by a rival to explore a star system where time no longer exists.
Professor Jemima Still has picked up a signal from an impossible source and takes an expert team to investigate.
But their mission is about to unleash hell upon the universe…
Kings of Infinite Space by Donald McLeary
With the Discordia on their tail, River and her friends run for their lives across time and space. But when your opponent can twist cause and effect to ensure victory at every turn, then escape may well be impossible.
Whodunnit? by Matt Fitton
Melody Malone finds herself in a castle, with an assortment of strange companions.
But guests are being murdered, one by one. Time is running out for a mystery to be solved.
And Franz Kafka is hiding something in the attic.
Someone I Once Knew by John Dorney
River has tried in vain to keep the Discordia away from the Doctor. Now, as devils run riot through universal spacetime, her own past with her husband is being rewritten. There is one last hope for the universe. A love story – but one that must find an ending…
The set features a pleasing variety of story types, including the space epic, the murder mystery and the love story – although each features a high-concept space-bound central idea of the Discordia’s altering of time. Cover designer Tom Webster continues to prove he is a great choice for depicting the colourful and exciting Doctor Who – New Series content with his detailed and vibrant designs.
This is my first time reviewing a River Song release, and I must admit that I admire Howard Carter’s main theme for the series for how it encapsulates River’s elegance, extravagance and romance, covering River’s universe-crossing adventures with an epic sweep.
Additionally, Carter‘s incidental music and sound design are dependably orchestral, epic and expansive in a musical sense, reflecting this depiction of the vastness of spacetime.
Time in a Bottle
With each new release, the Diary of River Song series continues to delve into aspects of River Song’s character backstory or the mythology of her time in Doctor Who. This time, her legacy as a past student at Luna University comes to the fore and listeners are introduced to Professor Jemima Still (Fenella Woolgar), a rival of River’s from her time at the university.
Owing to her backstory as the Doctor’s wife and her reputation as a kick-ass psychopath-slash-archaeologist, River has become something of a legend, with Professor Still’s research assistant Spod (Josh Bolt), a Class X battle cyborg, or “warborg”, admitting he is a massive fan of River’s. The Time Lords, too, are here considered long gone and have descended into myth – a scoop of show lore that is always fascinating to explore in further detail.
The stakes become higher in this set than they ever have been, both for River personally and the universe at large. The Discordia are a genuine threat to the status quo and quickly create a gharish, nightmarish visual image in the mind. They manipulate time strands to suit their desires and can use it to lay bait for their prey, changing the past to ensure they always succeed.
We are given glimpses of the Hell-dwelling creatures through the story, but as the tale builds it becomes clear that River is being lured into a trap, with the Discordia manipulating River’s feelings for and intrinsic connection to the Doctor as bait, aiming to get her to set them free from their prison of a time-less world.
Reeves and Fitton’s script, although full of threat, often sparkles with wit, and Spod in particular exhibits a goofy humour – he’s also full of contemporary Earth slang (including “cray”, “amazeballs” and “chillax”). River, Professor Still and Spod, along with ant-like Formidian creature Gammarae (Adele Lynch), create a diverse yet strangely coherent team that makes for an interesting listen – at least because not all of them continue across in the following episode…
Kings of Infinite Space
McLeary’s second script for Big Finish is essentially one long chase sequence, where we see River and her new-found team on the run from the high-ranking Discordia freed from their time-less world prison. The universe-trotting chase adventure features all sorts, from spaceships and alien planets to giant insects and its fair share of technobabble.
River’s group of allies encounter numerous worlds varied in texture and tone, from an ocean planet (“or a planet with an ocean”) to a lava planet (“or a planet with a volcano”) and more. She is being hunted down by the Discordia known as Melak (George Asprey) and faces off against various smaller threats in each location she and her allies visit, notably a genocidal mutant rat with a posh accent.
Kings of Infinite Space contrasts with the previous story’s mix of menace and humour, with McLeary going at it with a more comedic bent, from the pair of clumsy and slow Discordia guards to Spod’s interactions with the rest of the gang.
Although Melak is clearly the antagonist, there is a sense of a larger, more serious threat waiting out there for River, which the set is still building towards at this point, meaning Melak comes across more as a vexed individual with a vice for River than a world-ending threat.
River also battles against a robot duplicate version of herself who is programmed by the Discordia. This harkens back to the duplicate characters who featured heavily in series 3 of The Diary of River Song, and isn’t alone in adding to the overall series continuity – the concept of changing history and creating new eventualities was a core plotline of series 2. This is pleasing from a literary and character perspective, given River Song’s appearances on television often incorporated complex time-related phenomena.
River Song’s alter-ego Melody Malone returns and, along with writer Franz Kafka, is caught up in a mystery that draws inspiration in no small part from the likes of Agatha Christie. There has been a murder in a country house, and Malone is here to investigate. The question quickly becomes not only ‘Who is the murderer?’ but also ‘Why can’t River remember why she’s here?’
Again, it is pleasing to see another element of River-era Doctor Who is expanded upon here, namely Melody Malone, the hard-boiled detective side of River Song seen so briefly in The Angels Take Manhattan. River’s flexibility and scope as an individual character is impressive given how much she is presented in relation to the Doctor’s.
Adding detective to the list of archaeologist, time traveller, murderer/prisoner, part-Time Lord, wife of the Doctor, and daughter of Amy and Rory, makes for a truly multi-dimensional character – it becomes obvious why the Big Finish creative team sees so much potential in her character for new stories.
A line-up of assorted and idiosyncratic characters is dispatched, one-by-one, by the killer as in all classic murder mystery tales, although the reasons why this one has originated in-universe in the first place are slightly more complicated than is first apparent.
An outrageous French detective (the Agatha Christie parallels are intentional) joins the fray, and the references to Kafka’s body of work are plentiful. Themes of story and fiction, reality and guilt are threaded through the murder mystery plot to balance out the somewhat caricatured set of characters.
With the episode ending with a reference to the Discordia Emperor, we are left anticipating the final showdown and wondering just when and how the Doctor will be caught up in their devilish machinations.
Someone I Once Knew
The Discordia have altered the past such that the Doctor is now familiar with River Song’s identity – around six regenerations too early. This gives a clever new way of letting the two characters interact without ruining the characters’ continuity, as it is expected that circumstances will be repaired by the end and the Doctor’s memory of her will be removed.
We reach the peak of Discordia civilisation by visiting their home world, Discordia Prime, a world of “snow and wind, of perpetual winter” and other evocative imagery, which is also the lair of the Discordia Emperor Rakkezar. The Discordia prove most menacing in this story – perhaps owing to the knowledge this is the final episode which requires the culmination of what’s happened before now.
As writer John Dorney explains in the extras, at its core Someone I Once Knew is a love story, keying into the notion of unrequited love between River and the Doctor in a way that proves intrinsic to the plot more so than any large-scale science-fiction intentions to retroactively repair intergalactic damage done by the Discordia race.
Kingston, as ever, gives an emotional performance as the woman who loves the Doctor, and even members of the Discordia become involved in these themes of love, ultimate sacrifice and classic boy-meets-girl romance. Teaming River up with the Fourth Doctor makes for perhaps the most romantically-flavoured of all River-Doctor combinations from the Classic era.
Plus, there is a jibe at the Doctor’s tendency to favour 1970s London, specifically UNIT HQ, as his Earth destination of choice (also mentioning Harry Sullivan, Sergeant Benton and others), and in this version of the Doctor’s timeline, the Fourth Doctor knows Madame Vastra!
In the fifth disc of behind-the-scenes creative and actor interviews that commonly accompany boxset releases, it is genuinely fascinating to hear of actors’ choices in approaching the voice for their character(s), as well as – at least in this case – debates over the pronunciation of Adele Lynch’s character (Gamma-ray? Gam-mar-ray? Gam-maree?).
The Diary of River Song proves itself to be one of the series produced by Big Finish with the most prominent and regular connections to the post-2005 Doctor Who universe. Mythology (such as the Time Lords’ absence post-Time War and River’s Time Lord-infused DNA), characters (such as Madame Kovarian, Melody Malone) and themes (time paradoxes, rewriting the universe) drawn from her time on television are incorporated into The Diary of River Song to create a worthy extension upon televised stories.
River is fun and audacious, her adventures exciting and impactful, and her interaction with the Fourth Doctor well worth purchasing the release for alone.